Red Shifting, by Aleksandr Skidan, translated by Genya Turovskaya (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2008)
Despite the tendency of literary translators to complain—and they complain about everything: about their chronically inadequate command of the necessary languages and even less adequate financial compensation; about the shortsightedness of publishers who reject their proposals and the ignorance of those who accept them; about authors who know English too poorly to be helpful but too well to leave them alone; about editors who are too hands-off and proofreaders who cannot keep their hands to themselves; about the reviews they receive and those they do not; and, passionately, incessantly, about reader responses on Amazon.com—those who are foolish enough to embark on what is almost of necessity a fool’s errand have never had it so good. Editors of journals large and small are hungry as never before for work in translation. A number of top-quality digital and print publications, including Circumference, Words Without Borders, and Absinthe: New European Writing, have dedicated themselves exclusively to presenting this work to a wider audience. Meanwhile, several small publishing houses with sometimes fanciful names—Dalkey Archive, Zephyr, Ugly Duckling, Twisted Spoon—have added in recent years to the efforts of university presses and larger trade houses, whose interest in literature in translation waxes and wanes with market forces and the passions of individual editors. Translators can now apply for grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and American PEN that did not exist a few years ago, and their projects are sometimes subsidized by the national governments of countries that also did not exist a few years ago. Translation studies have flourished in the American academy as both theoretical discipline and practical craft. Now more than ever, translators can also rely on a growing network of friends and enemies, colleagues and rivals, collaborators and competitors, which makes the hopeless pursuit of the perfect rendering that much less lonely.
Of course, literature in translation still accounts for a sliver of the American publishing market, less than one percent of titles published per annum—also something translators often complain about. All that this means, however, is that what may go unnoticed for some time in the broader culture represents a sea change for anyone who derives pleasure and insight from foreign literature. Slowly but surely, we are coming to the end of an era when a given Nobel laureate or international firebrand—one may think of Czeslaw Milosz or Milan Kundera—represents an entire half-century of an otherwise obscure tradition to the American reader. The change is especially clear with regard to postwar writers from Eastern Europe, whose relevance to the West has often been predicated on a harrowing tale of political dissidence, exile, or worse. As postmodern mores rejecting the notion of “major” and “minor” authors take increasing hold among critical readers, the question of which Russian poet must be read gradually gives way to curiosities about what else is out there, what’s interesting or worthwhile. What’s fun?
Enter Aleksandr Skidan. He is not Joseph Brodsky, whose poems are so meticulous and elegant that he would have garnered international fame even if he hadn’t told a Soviet court that the gift of poetry had been granted him by God. He is not Yevgeny Yevtushenko, whose popularity in the United States many Russians find perplexing. He is neither controversial, nor revolutionary, nor wholly representative of contemporary Russian poetry (as if such a poet exists or has ever existed). He is simply a very good poet and an especially intriguing figure within the dense field of Russian letters. First and foremost, Red Shifting is worth reading because it affords genuine pleasure without concocting some cockamamie argument for why this poet is more relevant than others of his time and place.
Indeed, Skidan’s work is an effective argument against the entire construct of relevance. Born in Leningrad in 1965 and now a resident of St. Petersburg, he is skeptical—as perhaps anyone from that city should be—of names. Like a good poststructuralist, he has lost faith in the signifying function of language, though this does not mean that for him language has become meaningless. Rather, as the book’s title suggests, meaning shifts and blurs relative to the movements of author, reader, and text: nothing means just one thing all the time. Thus one section of “Delirium,” a long poem near the front of the book, consists of ellipses arranged into lines and stanzas finished off with an “etc.” Or, as Skidan puts it in “The Large Glass”:
hieroglyph of breathing
three or four inches from the groin
to specify is to ruin poetry
Although Skidan does not like to specify, this does not mean that his poems bear no relation to a concrete and accessible reality. On the contrary, his poems are thematically preoccupied with the language and imagery of mundane experience, even as that experience is abstracted by concepts or obscured by cognitive static. In this way he resembles the so-called “metarealist” strain in postwar Russian poetry, though that term is more properly applied to poets a full generation older than Skidan. Deeply engaged with the work of such North American poets as Lyn Hejinian and Michael Palmer, who have translated their poems and been translated by them in turn, the metarealists have laid the foundation for a truly Russian counterpart to American and French innovations in poststructuralist verse. If their poetry refuses to make conventional sense of reality, it is only because they do not believe it is the function of language or the nature of reality to make sense.
Fortunately, thanks to the work of daring publishers and dedicated translators, it is now possible for the non-Russian reader to make sense of this tradition even as it continues to unfold. Evgeny Bunimovich’s Contemporary Russian Poetry, out this year from Dalkey Archive, is a good place to start. John High’s edgier anthology Crossing Centuries: The New Generation of Russian Poetry (Talisman House), which helped introduce Skidan’s work to an American audience in 2000, then fills in the landscape of what Russian poetry has looked like since the fall of Communism and the rise of—well, of whatever it is they have now. There is also no shortage of scholarly literature in English; Jacob Edmond, who contributed additional translations to Red Shifting, has been particularly effective in tracing the links between Lyn Hejinian, American Language poetry, and the new Russian poetry. For those who cannot walk and talk in that landscape, these guides provide the next best thing.
And Skidan’s work, which has received considerable critical acclaim, occupies a rather peculiar place. It is one thing to assert that we cannot communicate the experience of our selfhood perfectly to the Other. But Skidan takes this axiom of postmodern thought to the next level by struggling with the possibility that one cannot even communicate experience to oneself. A translator of Slavoj Žižek and Jean-Luc Nancy into Russian, Skidan echoes their fundamental doubt in the individuality of the individual. His work suggests instead that the individual self is also a construct or empty signifier, a bewildering, constantly shifting confluence of impressions, voices, and impulses. Skidan revisits this self-abandonment repeatedly in the poems in Red Shifting. In this, too, is rooted the delirium of “Delirium”:
. . . Even igniting, I no longer pronounces
“I;” taste the rustle of this grass from nowhere: waste
of dust. Scattering. My mouth. To behold,
how winter blazes, how
the fruit of the desert, trembling, opens,
clouds. The host of the “alexandrian” winter; intoxication,
as if—never. The night beats a black wing,
as if about to hoist itself onto the bust of the goddess.
As much as the associative leaps instantiated in these lines may suggest stream-of-consciousness, they actually question the very existence of consciousness as a singular, unified entity: “I no longer pronounces / ‘I.’ ” The self-interested subject, the thematic cornerstone of Western poetry in the twentieth century, gradually falls apart as we break into the twenty-first. What we are left with instead is the speaker/observer as the intersection of those things he observes, a tour guide through a world of happenstance. In his characteristically oblique introduction to Red Shifting, Arkadii Dragomoshchenko, perhaps the most influential representative of Russian metarealism, aptly describes Skidan’s work as “somnambulistic.” That is, the speaker of these poems wanders through his daily life while only partially aware of the world around him and even less aware of himself. “How can one desire the metonymy / of oneself?” he asks in “The Plaster Cast,” as if to emphasize that it is the unaccountable desire for identity, rather than that identity’s absence, that prompts crisis.
We are not accustomed to thinking of the poet as a passive observer, and the novelty alone makes Skidan worth reading. But no matter how cleverly this passive or “somnambulistic” quality is constructed, it can never fully mask the very active lyric intelligence that makes word choices and line breaks and assembles language into a poem, especially when that intelligence is so acute. Skidan is a virtuoso of linguistic association and recombination. Also the author of essays and fiction, his 2003 novella A Guide to N, about the late insanity of Friedrich Nietzsche, consists almost entirely of language ripped from Vladimir Nabokov, Marcel Proust, and others. In his poems, Skidan’s formal skill is most evident in how he constructs complex images around aural associations, a favorite technique of such Modernist masters as Osip Mandelstam and Nikolai Zabolotsky. In the passage from “Delirium” quoted above, for example, “clouds” and “host” are nearly the same word in Russian (oblaka versus oblatka). It is a very difficult effect to reproduce in translation, especially when the words appear right next to each other, as though the poet had misspoken and corrected himself. Genya Turovskaya, who translated most of the poems in Red Shifting, does an often remarkable job of reproducing the effect without sacrificing the literal values of the original. The equivalence of “clouds” and “host” may be lost, but it is recovered by the echo of “host” and “hoist.” Similar skill can be seen (and heard) in Turovskaya’s execution of the last section of “Scholia”:
<this is not a poem>
a noun <Celan>
<and, of course, Goethe! Goethe!>
a certain sense
even if in absence or on the sly
“to see Alexandria and to die”
“I am literally torn to pieces”
<a certain sense>
a headless man walks lives
for four hours
but to say this
is to say
the hanged man hangs forever
The poem constantly walks around itself, grappling with tradition and influence (Celan, Goethe), as well as with the fact that things always coalesce around “a certain sense,” which may nevertheless arise “in absence or on the sly.” Meaning becomes a kind of horror, never ending, but also never stable: “the hanged man hangs forever.” Turovskaya provides an impressively direct rendering of the wordplay in Russian. While she could have dropped the second “to” in “to see Alexandria and to die,” likely a deliberate wink at the 1992 film To See Paris and Die, the rhyme with “sly” is a pleasant bonus.
Not all the translations here are equally felicitous. That Turovskaya and her collaborators (Eugene Ostashevsky, Evgeny Pavlov, and Natasha Randall, in addition to Jacob Edmond) usually rise to the challenges Skidan presents them also highlights the few times they seem to have resigned from the task. The English version of Dragomoshchenko’s introduction is strikingly wooden. In what is likely an accidental instance of mimetic fallacy in “The Flame of Cassis,” the Russian lines meaning “For here speech dies, / in the origins of the world” are rendered simply as “For it’s here where / speech dies.” Even “red shifting,” by which Turovskaya translates the physical phenomenon known in English as “redshift,” carries unnecessary fingerprints from the translator’s hand.
As with any translation, there are other tiny nits to pick, though no point in doing so. Not everyone would recognize them as stumbles. The whole point, in fact, is that the text will change with the reader, who is also changing, a process whose discomforts Skidan underscores in the book’s title poem: “Translate. // More and more often this pleasure begins to cause pain.” By the end of this smart, lovingly made, and not especially hopeful book, we know exactly what the poet means.